Hong Kong writers, publishers and booksellers are anxious that the national security law being drawn up by Beijing for the city will have a chilling effect on their industry.
They worry there will be restrictions on what can be written, published and sold, and that a “reporting culture” will take root, with pro-Beijing patriots denouncing anything they consider politically incorrect.
“When the authorities have power, they will use it sooner or later,” prominent writer Tang Siu-wa said. “Coupled with ‘the reporting culture’, I feel my creative freedom and personal safety are at risk.”
China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the mainland’s top legislative body, on Thursday began a three-day meeting at which a draft of the tailor-made national security law for Hong Kong was tabled.
The law, which could be passed as early as this month, will outlaw acts of secession, subversion, terrorism as well as “collusion with foreign and external forces to endanger national security”.
On Saturday, state news agency Xinhua outlined more details of the law, saying it would ensure the city’s government upheld its commitments to human rights even as it safeguarded national security.
“It must protect the freedoms of expression, the press, publication, association, assembly … that Hong Kong people enjoy under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” it said.
The Hong Kong government must also establish new institutions designed to protect national security, and allow mainland agencies to operate in the city “when needed”.
Members of the publishing community fear the law will deal another blow to a sector still haunted by the 2015 case of five associates of the Causeway Bay Books and Mighty Current Publishing House.
Between October and December that year, the men vanished one after another – from Thailand, Hong Kong and the mainland – sparking fears they had been seized by Chinese agents because of the salacious, gossipy books their company published about the mainland leadership.
All five later resurfaced in custody on the mainland, under investigation for illegally delivering about 4,000 banned books from Hong Kong to 380 customers across the border since October 2014.
In February this year, a Chinese court sentenced Gui Minhai, owner of the bookstore and the publishing house, to 10 years’ jail and deprivation of political rights for five years for “illegally providing intelligence to overseas entities”.
Three others, Lee Po, Cheung Chi-ping and Lui Por were released in March 2016 and have since avoided the spotlight.
The fifth man, Lam Wing-kee, founder of the bookstore, returned in 2016 too, but spoke openly about his ordeal in custody. He has been wanted by mainland authorities since, but fled to Taiwan last year. In April, he opened a bookstore with the same name in Taipei.
In an interview prior to Xinhua’s announcement, Tang, the author, said: “Many Hongkongers have already gone to Taiwan to publish their books. This is very sad.” She lamented that Hong Kong’s publishing scene used to be the most free, compared with the mainland and Taiwan.
A prominent name in Hong Kong’s literary scene, Tang, 42, has published collections of poems and prose over a career spanning 20 years, and also writes as a cultural critic.
She was in the news last November when she was arrested at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where she remained to witness some of the most intense clashes between anti-government protesters and police.
As convenor of the House of Hong Kong Literature, an organisation that promotes local writing, Tang was concerned over its plan to reprint a Chinese novel related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
“Will publishing the book drag the writer into trouble?” she said. “Will the publisher be framed as supporting Hong Kong independence?”
Tang said that pondering the possible effects of the new law sometimes left her so despondent she had thought of quitting the literary scene altogether to open an eatery or work as a waitress.
“When I can’t work in culture, publishing and education, it’s OK for me to sell fish balls,” she said. “Maybe in the food and drink sector, a person doesn’t have to go against their conscience to work.”
Jimmy Pang Chi-ming, head of publishing house Subculture, was worried that once the national security law was in force, the authorities would move the goalposts in identifying those who break the rules, sparking “white terror”. He publishes books on local culture as well as those poking fun at Hong Kong government officials and politicians.
“For example, we published a title, ‘Independence’, which is not advocating people to fight for independence, but is about the history of different nations going independent,” he said. “If they see the word ‘independence’ and then trouble the author or publisher, how do we respond?”
Adding to the jitters within the industry is the fact that next month’s Hong Kong book fair has already stirred controversy.
The pro-establishment group Politihk Social Strategic has launched an online campaign called “No independence in the book fair”, appealing to the public to report any publications or other products suspected of being harmful to national security.
The group has encouraged people to send them pictures of any items they find offensive, promising to forward them to the mainland’s security department.
Pang said some in the industry had begun asking if books about the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing, a taboo subject on the mainland, could still be sold at the fair.
Daniel Lee, a partner at independent bookstore Hong Kong Reader, said titles about Hong Kong studies and politics were among its bestsellers and it would be worrying if such books were suddenly banned.
Any such restrictions in the wake of the new national security law would also clash with the company’s vision to provide its customers a platform to discuss knowledge, politics and society.
“In the worst scenario, we will just become a bookstore selling books printed in simplified Chinese and they won’t be able to accuse us of wrongdoing. There will still be other good books and we will just try our best,” Lee said.
For now, he added, he was waiting to see the details of the new law and how his shop might be affected before deciding his next moves.
Others, however, said members of the book industry were worrying unnecessarily.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Ma Fung-kwok, who represents the publishing sector and is a deputy to the National People’s Congress, said Beijing would only target acts that breached the law, which were unrelated to freedom of expression and publishing.
“In Hong Kong, suspects could also defend themselves in the courts. I don’t understand where these worries are coming from,” he said.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said he did not foresee the law having a serious effect on publishing, unless a publication contained false information aimed at defaming the country’s leaders, or circulated rumours to create political chaos in Hong Kong and China.
“These would have obvious political motives and involve fabrication of facts or spreading rumours, so maybe these would see an impact,” he said. “But for others about academic studies, I don’t think they will be affected.”
He also felt it would not be easy for a person to be found guilty for writing, publishing or selling an offending book, because the authorities would have to consider all the evidence, ranging from the individuals’ actions, expressions, motives and the consequences triggered.
“The national security law is not the kind of law which will be used easily,” he said.
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